Finished the Teaching Company's High Middle Ages course by Philip Daileader. Pretty interesting. Less depressing than the Early Middle Ages course, which had Europe declining as the Western Roman empire faded away: this one covers 1000 to 1300, which has a kind of mini Renaissance. Population of Europe doubles, cities start to grow, some modest technology improvements occur.
It's mostly thematic with a few lectures of political history as well. Quite a few interesting observations, like the way women were allowed power in the more dynastic power systems where people inherited positions; but in the more Republican systems like the towns they could be excluded.
Saw The Dumb Waiter at Trafalgar Studios. Short play about a couple of hitmen holed up in a cellar, receiving occasional messages through a dumb waiter.
Funny but rather baffling: Harold Pinter wrote it heavily under the influence of Beckett, and it's heavily absurdist. You can read it in a number of ways: Dumb Waiter as metaphor for God, metaphor for the class system but none of them are terribly interesting.
Seemed like a good production though: nice mix of tension and humour. Lee Evans was good: projecting a lot of pathos.
Also pretty expensive for a short play. Overall not bad, but wouldn't particularly recommend it.
Finished a very short TTC lecture Is anyone really normal? Perspectives on Abnormal Psychology by Drew Western. Only eight 45-minute lectures, so didn't really cover that much; most of which I already knew.
Bit of an old one, seems to be early 1990s and not in stock anymore, so don't know how up to date it is. The author is a practising therapist as well as an academic, which gives him an interesting perspective. According to him, academic psychology tends to regard Freud as outdated, yet most practising therapists still use some variant of Freudianism. So, he devotes the bulk of the course to Freud, with some not very convincing defences of it; pointing out that it's very hard to prove or disprove.
Some interesting anecdotes, but don't really recommend it.
Not sure what's next. Might go back to history with Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations since that seems to pick up more or less where the High Middle Ages course ended. I just hope nothing interesting happened between 1300 and 1347.
What I'm Reading
Finished God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution by John Haught.
Struggling with it a bit, because while it's pretty lucidly written even for non-theologians, I'm not that interested by the subject in general, and it focuses on areas that I'm particularly uninterested in. I think it would be intelligible but a slight struggle for someone who's not read any philosophy of religion before: complicated technical terms do get a quick definition, but are then taken for granted.
I think a Dawkinsian reading this would be disappointed. Dawkins likes to characterize religion in a particular way, as an attempt to explain the origin of the physical universe, centred around the Argument from Design. To most Christian thinkers, however, the Argument from Design has been a fairly peripheral issue; one argument amongst many, and contextualized by a substantial opinion that the existence of God is a matter for faith rather than proof anyway.
Haught instead considers that evolution threatens religion in two ways. Firstly, the operation of evolution seems cruel, inefficient, violent and unfair; as the weak are ruthlessly eliminated in favour of the strong. Therefore, it poses a problem that a benevolent creator would work in such a way. Secondly, that there is a continuum between humanity, apes, animals and the rest of the natural world, which threatens a religious notion that human beings are a special case.
There are essentially three ways to respond to this. The Dawkinsian/Southern Baptist view is that evolution and God are fundamentally inconsistent and one must choose to believe one or the other. The separatist view is that religion and science cover different domains, so that there is no conflict. Haught adopts a third view, that religion and evolution need to be integrated, and concentrates most of the book upon this. If you accept the first or the second view though; the book could seem like an irrelevant exercise in which he creates problems in order to solve them.
Haught comes up with some ingenious solutions to these problems. He argues that the view of a static, elegant creation architected by a single creator is actually mostly the product of the Greek philosophy appropriated by Church theologians. What Christian eschatology ought to emphasize is that the universe is actually in a process of becoming more perfect. Thus, the evolution of steadily more complex forms actually fits well with Christianity.
He partly justifies the apparent cruelty of the universe by the standard Problem of Evil explanations and evasions (too mysterious for our poor human brains).
Regarding the apparent randomness of evolution he makes an interesting argument based on the concept of God as Love. God's love for creation means that the traditional conception of God's power, where he forcibly exerts his will on the universe, is actually unlikely. Instead, God's love means that he gives creation as much freedom and space as possible, allowing it to change, to expand and to overcome challenges. So, the creation of such a vast and ancient universe for tiny and brief pockets of life becomes more plausible.
Haught's defences of evolution's compatibility with Christianity seem pretty persuasive, though of course fairly pointless if you're a separatist. However, when he moves beyond this into creating a Theology of Evolution, he becomes less convincing. He devotes a lot of effort to defining structures of information as a fundamental and immaterial part of evolution. These progress to become ever more complex, giving a teleological quality to evolution. This is harder to believe, and it seems a little perilous to tie religion to a particular history of evolution that way. In some ways and at some times diversity is reduced. For instance, extinction events, the huge diversity of the Burgess Shale lifeforms, invasive predators disrupting ecosystems. Suppose that a mission to another planet (Mars?) discovered a once-thriving ecosystem reduced to a couple of species: would that mean that this time we really do have to abandon religion in response to fossil evidence?
Haught's arguments also seem a little weak when he tries to tie evolution to a divine meaning or purpose. He's very reluctant to define or even examine these concepts too closely, which makes it unconvincing when he tries to claim that religion is necessary because it gives a meaning to evolution.
Ethically, he takes his view from what he calls an "Aesthetic Cosmological Principle": that the universe is intended to create ever more complexity, diversity and beauty. Therefore ethically, we should also accept and embrace diversity, and seek to create beauty. He doesn't address whether we should also accept a diversity of religion, however.
Overall though, a thoughtful book, worth a look if you're interested in the subject.
I seem to have put on a couple of pounds. Have upped the dumb-bell weights lately after a long period of maintenance. However, I think it has a lot more to do with my boozing it up more. Have been eating too many conventional snacks too. Need to cut down on the booze and go back to the rice cakes.
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